by Sherri Williams
Moments after President Trump spoke at the “Save America” rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, and repeated lies about his legitimate presidential loss, he encouraged his supporters, including white supremacists, to walk to the nearby U.S. Capitol and put pressure on Republican lawmakers as they confirmed the 2020 presidential election results.
Trump’s supporters broke doors, shattered and crawled through windows, and invaded legislative offices. One even climbed over and dangled from the Senate balcony like a villain in a James Bond film. Others stormed into congressional chambers. Lawmakers dropped to the floor in fear. The session stopped. Legislators were evacuated.
Trump’s supporters staged a coup. Their mission to violently disrupt the formal congressional acceptance of Joe Biden’s presidency was accomplished, temporarily.
But the law enforcement response to the rioters was quite different than what we saw last summer when Black Lives Matters protesters marched peacefully in cities throughout the nation. During the chaos at the U.S. Capitol, we didn’t see clouds of tear gas thrust toward the massive crowd, nor rubber bullets discharged from officers' guns. We also didn’t see batons swinging from their hands and pounding the bodies of the mostly white invaders who bombarded federal grounds. That kind of authoritative response seems to be reserved for Black activists and allies.
Last summer, Trump unleashed federal authorities on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., who resisted police killing Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
But there was no law, no order for the MAGA crowd who carried Blue Lives Matter flags. During this historic assault on American democracy and mammoth display of hypocrisy, officers appeared to help invaders move barricades and took selfies with them.
I saw white supremacy, white privilege and white arrogance — a treacherous and explosive entanglement of toxic whiteness — explode and detonate the ideas of democracy and decorum that Americans hold so dear only to leave open wounds that will not heal anytime soon. These Trump supporters — those in the streets and in Congress — saw themselves as patriots. But Black folks knew that if they had carried out these acts of insurrection it would have meant automatic death for them.
Domestic terrorists commanded control of the U.S. Capitol for a nearly five-hour mutiny that resembled a military invasion. This was the Michigan militia state capitol COVID protest of last summer on steroids. It was a version of the unthinkable, maniacal plots to kidnap and terrorize Michigan Gov. Grethen Whittmer and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in action. This domestic terrorism transformed our national congressional chambers into sites of lawlessness where anarchy was allowed to flourish for hours. Those who claim to uphold law and order violently rejected the legal presidential election process.
The fact that thousands of Trump’s supporters’ insurrection resulted in only 52 arrests, mostly for curfew violations, is overt and systemic racism.
Black folks know that if we executed such a plan we would be blocked by bullets before our feet hit the Capitol steps. For example, in 2013, Miriam Carey, a Black woman, was fatally shot by Capitol police in her car outside of the Capitol with her 13-month-old daughter in the vehicle after accidently hitting a barricade while making a U-turn. Black activists lamented the speed at which they were arrested at the Capitol during past protests.
This revolt was deadly. Five people died as a result of it. We know that if this group was mostly Black the death toll and arrest totals would be higher.
This anarchy was an extension of the chaos on which the country was built. This nation, founded on the theft of indigenous people’s land and their genocide and the enslavement and commodification of Africans, stands on a bloody legacy of lies and oppression. This country has allowed the whitewashed fable of a flawless and innocent democracy born out of morality and nobility to reign without really correcting the historical record or atoning for the nation’s original sins.
White supremacists in this country, including Trump, believe in manifest destiny, the white man’s burden, American exceptionalism and their complete entitlement to power and privilege in this nation even if it isn’t earned fairly.
On the campaign trail, Trump tapped into white Americans’ fears of being left behind in an increasing racially diverse country where they believe people of color are taking their jobs, making them unsafe and canceling their culture. Trump amplified those racist lies as president and doubled down on the unfounded conspiracy that the election was rigged and stolen from those he views as true Americans. That is how we got here.
Trump used racism to incite sedition and uphold his power, not real democracy. As his supporters roamed the U.S. Capitol halls with Confederate flags, legislators inside congressional chambers attempted to manipulate the law to keep Trump in the White House. This multilayered coup attempt left the entire country painfully vulnerable, and it is proof that the nation’s default to white supremacy puts all of us in danger.
This revolt exposed imperfections in our political system in the midst of progress. It happened a day after the Rev. Raphael Warnock was elected the first Black U.S. senator from Georgia and two weeks before the inauguration of Sen. Kamala Harris, the nation’s first woman, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect. Both are graduates of Black colleges and their political wins chip away at the white dominant ruling class that Trump and his supporters want to preserve.